John McCain's presidential campaign has been likened to a pirate ship: A feisty captain, rhetorical saber in hand, leading a fiercely loyal crew against his Republican primary opponents. The five experienced hands who navigated McCain's candidacy back from the brink of death are now charting the course toward the general election. All volunteers, his top advisers spent the weekend in Arizona plotting the transition.
Their challenge: Keep the organic feel of a bare-bones organization that the candidate has come to trust - and that has seen remarkable success - while expanding it into a GOP battleship able to take on either Barack Obama or Hillary Rodham Clinton and a Democratic Party hungry to regain the White House after eight years of Republican rule.
"I'm very happy with our advisers," McCain said last week, reflecting on his campaign's new chapter. "I'm not so much worried about that as I am losing the flavor of the campaign."
He wants to preserve his freewheeling style, especially the lengthy ask-anything town-hall-style events that are a hallmark of his campaign.
"We can't play it safe. We tried that once," McCain said, recalling the early months of the primary season, when critics say his campaign bore the mark of a large Bush-style bureaucracy and the cautiousness that came with it.
Back then, McCain paired veterans from George W. Bush's two successful elections with loyalists from his first failed candidacy. High-paid consultants were hired and some 150 staffers filled an expansive Northern Virginia headquarters.
McCain's allies grumbled that the campaign didn't fit the candidate and predicted the organization would crumble.
Sure enough, by last summer, McCain found his campaign account drained of some $25 million he had raised; staff layoffs and top-level management changes followed.
McCain went forward in his own way, and, by necessity, with a pared-down campaign.
Several people, including Michael Dennehy (politics), Carla Eudy (finance), Brett O'Donnell (debates) and Jill Hazelbaker (communications), played significant roles. And some Republican politicians, most notably South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, have been all but attached to McCain's side.
But five seasoned political operatives closed ranks to form McCain's inner circle through his improbable primary comeback and now as he embarks on the general election. They travel frequently with the candidate; a few were in Houston on Monday to see him pick up former President George H.W. Bush's endorsement.
This is McCain's brain trust:
Rick Davis: One of McCain's closest advisers for more than a decade, Davis managed his first presidential campaign in 2000. A longtime Washington lobbyist, Davis has strong ties to major GOP fundraisers. He also is close to McCain's wife, Cindy. Davis was chief executive officer as McCain's second campaign began. By summer, the staff shakeup resulted in Davis' elevation to campaign manager. His objectives then were to stabilize finances and let McCain be himself. His objective now is to guide the inevitable growth.
Mark Salter: His links to McCain are so long and deep that that Salter can sometimes seem to know just as much about McCain's life as the candidate himself does. Salter is often called McCain's alter ego. He spent years as McCain's Senate chief of staff and is the co-author of several of McCain's books, including "Faith of Our Fathers," the story of his military career. Among his duties these days: writing McCain's campaign speeches, flawlessly capturing the candidate's voice.
Charlie Black: Involved in GOP politics for dozens of years, Black was a senior adviser to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He also has a close association with the current president. Now chairman of the lobbying firm BKSH & Associates, Black signed on with McCain in an informal capacity last year, but his role quickly mushroomed after McCain's near implosion. He's now considered the dean of the group, with a historical knowledge of campaigns and GOP establishment connections.
Steve Schmidt: A veteran of President Bush's 2004 campaign and the White House, Schmidt managed California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's successful re-election bid two years later. Now a partner of Mercury Public Affairs and based in California, Schmidt was an informal adviser in the McCain campaign's early months. He established a rapport with McCain that withstood the summertime turmoil. By late fall, Schmidt was heavily involved in the campaign's communication and strategy.
Mark McKinnon: Bush's media adviser in 2000 and 2004, McKinnon has been with McCain from the start and leads the small team making his TV ads. A Public Strategies vice chairman and Maverick Media's president, the former country-rock songwriter splits his time between Texas and Washington. His future with the campaign is unclear. Having worked for Democrats before, McKinnon has signaled that he will support McCain "from the sidelines" if Obama, whom he respects, is the Democratic nominee.